December 19th, 2007
Michael Krigsman has a provocative posting this evening on his ZDNet blog titled “Twitter is Dangerous.” Michael, who is a very smart guy whose opinions I respect, seems to enjoy starting debates by making such provocative statements … and since I seem to be suffering a bit of indigestion from too many garlic-laced French Fries at dinner tonight, I couldn’t help but respond.
In case you’re one of the technology Luddites who has no idea what this is all about, Twitter is an instant-messaging service that was started a couple of years ago by Evan Williams, who noticed some 200 people emerging from a lecture at Stanford, all picking up their cell phones to ask their friends, “What are you doing?” It helps create what David Weinberger (whose Twitter-id is “dweinberger”) has characterized as “continuous partial friendship,” and what a Nov 4, 2007 New York Times article (“The Global Sympathetic Audience“) characterized as “ambient intimacy.” It was Michael (whose Twitter-id is “mkrigsman”), as I recall, who recently tracked down the Twitter Directory, indicating that there are currently 672,693 Twitterers; so it’s not as popular as Facebook or Myspace, but it’s certainly well on its way to becoming a “phenomenon”; indeed, it even showed up on a recent episode of “CSI New York”, for whatever that’s worth.
Okay, that’s what Twitter is all about. So why is Michael so concerned about it? Here’s the gist of his concern:
Why it matters? Twitter has the power to turn groups of innocent bystanders into instant analysts. Even seemingly innocuous comments, when put before a large group of people, can be analyzed more rapidly, and in more depth, than you might expect. This can easily cause ranges of unintended, highly negative, consequences.
Yeah … well, to me, that’s like saying that the Internet is dangerous because it enables children to see pornography, or because hundreds (maybe thousands) of people actually respond to those ridiculous Nigerian spam emails about millions of dollars in unclaimed bank accounts. Sure, Twitter is potentially dangerous — in the same way that any other form of instant messaging, e-mail, and blogging could be dangerous. Hey, while we’re at it, telephones are dangerous! So are letters mailed through the U.S. Post Office (assuming that any of them actually get delivered.) So is talking to other people, especially strangers. Who knows — maybe it’s even dangerous to think uncensored thoughts in the presence of advanced mind-reading devices operated by Homeland Security and the KGB.
Okay, I’ll accept the point (not that Michael ever mentions it) that otherwise intelligent people might naively fail to recognize that Twitter is a relatively new “channel” over which confidential information might be inadvertently transmitted. I suppose there are people out there, in the real world, who are reasonably careful to maintain the confidentiality of their phone conversations and their email messages, but who don’t stop to think about the security risks of blabbing something to the members of their Twitter network.
So I guess it wouldn’t bother me, if I were a loyal employee of XYZ Corp, if I got an email message tomorrow morning (along with all of my fellow employees) from the Chief Security Officer that said, “By the way, don’t forget that security practices and policies apply to your Twitter communications, just as much as do to other forms of communication.” Oh, I might think. Yeah, obviously. Thanks for the reminder. And that’s all it takes. Done. Over and out.
God knows I don’t monitor the “tweets” (as Twitter messages are generally called) of Twitter’s 700,000 users; but I do cast an occasional glance at the stream of tweets from the hundred-odd people that I “follow” — i.e., the people who form my own local Twitter network. I’ve seen good messages and bad, a few drunken outbursts, and the usual spectrum of jokes and casual bantering; but I haven’t seen any confidential information being communicated, either deliberately or accidentally. Yes, maybe there have been some subtle nuances that a corporate spy could take advantage of; but what has impressed me more is how careful everyone has been to avoid mentioning anything specific about clients, or confidential projects, or the specifics of internal corporate politics that drives them nuts during the day.
Of course, just because I haven’t seen any specific instances of confidential information being revealed doesn’t mean that the risk is non-existent. But hell, it’s risky to even get out of bed in the morning! I think what’s important is to balance the risk of various actions — and, in this case, various communication collaboration mechanisms — against the benefits. And while many people might view Twitter as nothing more than a simple mechanism to exchange casual conversations (“So, whatcha doing?” “Nuthin — how about you?”), I’ve seen dozens of instances of quick, informal question-and-answer exchanges between Twitterers, in which real benefits were realized.
Just this morning, for example, David Weinberger encountered a problem making Apple’s Keynote (a superior version of what the Windoze world thinks of as Powerpoint) export one of his presentations in some specialized QuickTime format. I didn’t even understand his question, so I simply ignored David’s tweet; but a couple hundred other people (i.e., those who “follow” David’s tweets, by conscious choice and selection) also saw it; and within a matter of minutes, someone suggested a quick, simple, $20 solution to his problem. A little exchange like that is not going to cure cancer, or bring about world peace, but the aggregate value of dozen, or hundreds, or thousands of such collaborations is, in my humble opinion, worth an awful lot.
I suspect that the companies that succumb to the paranoia of Twitter-risks that Michael has highlighted are probably the same companies that firmly believe blogging will bring about the downfall of civilization. Many of those companies would be much happier if there was no inter-company e-mail, and no such thing as the Internet. The obvious examples are banks, Wall Street companies, and companies in other highly-regulated industries. And my personal reaction is pretty simple: thank God I don’t have to work in such companies. Indeed, if we’re lucky, perhaps there will come a time when nobody has to work in such companies.
Meanwhile… Michael, lighten up! If you were really so concerned about the dangers of Twitter, you wouldn’t be using it, right? According to Twitter, you’ve already issued 1,245 tweets … are you really sure they’re all completely sanitized of any confidential, proprietary, inappropriate thoughts? Huh?